Mohamed Ali, a 23-year-old architecture student at Damascus University, is living underground. He’s using a pseudonym, and his profile picture during our internet phone call is not of him but his friend, a classmate who was killed at the Saida shooting in April.
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Ali has exams he should be attending, but he thinks he will be arrested if he shows his face, since the authorities are looking for him. On March 15, he and his 54-year-old father, responding to a notice on the “Syrian Revolution” Facebook page, travelled from the town of Zabadani to Damascus to join the first protest there, at the Umayyad Mosque.
As the protest neared Harika Square, just blocks from the capital’s Justice Palace, security officers attacked the group. Ali and his father managed to escape.
Two days later, activists called for a strike in Damascus, and Ali and his father attended a sit-in at the Interior Ministry, demanding the release of high-profile political prisoners with about 150 other protesters.
Again, security forces attacked, clubbing the protesters with batons, some of which were electrified. They forced Ali and his father to the ground, cursing and beating them, but the phalanx of officers swept past. They seized the daughter of Noureddine al-Atassi, a former president from the 1960s, and dragged her away by her hair.
‘You can’t help your father, you can’t do anything’
After the sit-in, Ali and his father went into hiding. They moved from house to house in Zabadani four times in two weeks, believing their names and photographs had been recorded by the police.
Ali’s hatred of the Assad regime dates to his years in secondary school, when he was told to write an application to the Ba’ath Party. Ali confronted the principal of the school and refused to apply.
“After this, I start to learn about politics, I start to read books, I start to learn about democracies,” he said. “I start to know our system is not democratic. Our system does not give us enough. We choose one president from one person, they send us a name, Bashar al-Assad, and they choose him.”
Ali tried to continue organising protests while in hiding.
“We don’t want to be ruled by someone until his death, and then his son,” he said.
Ali’s father eventually decided to reopen his tailor shop and begin working again. The day he opened the shop, Ali joined him. After a few hours, he stepped out while his father made tea.
When he returned, a state security car was parked outside the shop, and Ali watched from down the street as four men bundled his father inside.
“It was so hard, it was a horrible moment. You can’t help your father, you can’t do anything,” he said.
Neighbours watching the incident with Ali told him to run before he was caught. He went back into hiding, moving between houses in Zabadani.
‘You don’t have dignity’
Ten days later, his father returned from jail. He had been taken to Damascus, to a branch of State Security on Baghdad Street.
His eyes were bloodshot, his face and body swollen and bruised. He had not been allowed to shave, so his beard had grown. He leaned on a cane as he walked. Ali’s mother and sister cried when they saw him.
According to Ali, his father was held in solitary confinement and tortured during his first five days in custody. When he first arrived at the jail, the guards threw him to the ground, beat him and tossed food on his head.
He was beaten with electrified batons and put into stress positions. Once, his guards cuffed his hands and legs to a bed and beat him with electrified batons, then left him for hours. They sent him to his cell, then called him back, hung him upside down by his feet, beat him, and left him again. The officers insulted his wife, daughter, and sister and told him they would be raped.
During the regular interrogations, accompanied by beatings with electrified batons, they asked Ali’s father why he went to protests.
“He said, ‘I go to protest because I want my son future, I want my daughter future, I want my dignity.’ [The] detective start to yell, ‘You don’t have dignity, I will give you dignity,’ [and] started to hit him.”
On the fourth day, his interrogators showed him a large sign. “No to violence,” it said.
“You wrote this,” they told him.
His father said no, his handwriting was not that good. He couldn’t have.
The interrogators wrote a confession later that day, and Ali’s father signed.
The next day, they beat him before sending him before a judge at the Justice Palace. The judge asked if he had been beaten or tortured. He said he had. The judge told his father he “deserved it”, Ali said.
A life underground
After the hearing, he was sent to Adra Prison, infamous for its activist inmates and alleged torture, and told he would have a trial in a month. He quickly arranged to pay bail, of around $105, and was released.
Ali’s father returned to Zabadani and reopened the shop. He had no intention of returning for his trial.
Ali lived in safe houses and tried to coordinate protests in the area. His father called regularly to check on him.
“I am staying inside all the time, on the internet, and when there is a protest I go out. I can’t work, I can’t go to my college,” he said.
He thinks the government’s campaign of arrests and abuse is meant to sow fear in the opposition.
“They send a message to us: ‘If you go to any protest, this will happen to you’ … Just to make us afraid and scared,” he said. “And we are not scared, we are not afraid. After I saw my father, I take a promise to myself to keep going to the protests until the regime goes down.”
“I think it’s hard right now, [but] I think it’s going to happen. We can fight forever because we were wronged, he [Assad] did us an injustice.”
A week later, I received an instant message from Ali’s friend Nasser Youssef, a Zabadani man whom he had met at the Umayyed Mosque protest.
He asked if I remembered his friend, the one he introduced me to, who went by the name Mohamed Ali. He was arrested at a checkpoint, Youssef said. He hadn’t heard from him since.